Being Seen instead of Sight

Panopticum BenthamCompetitive Intelligence has to do with sight. It is important to see what your competitors do, and what else is happening in your environment. Although CI is not only about sight – you also have to do something with your vision – in this blogpost I would like to focus primarily on sight. But this focus won’t be the traditional perspective (observing the environment), but the other way around (the environment observing you). I would like to discuss what visibility means for an organization. Are you aware about the information your competitors can see? In this blogpost, I would like to discuss ‘being seen’.

First, I would like to discuss an interesting mechanism described by Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a French philosopher. In his book ‘Discipline and Punish: The Origin of the Prison’ (1975) he describes an architecture named the ‘Panopticum’. This architecture is invented by Jeremy Bentham (1748—1832), an English philosopher. Originally, it was intended for the imprisonment of felons. The structure consists of a tower in the middle, from where the guards can see the prisoners. In a circle around this tower, you can find the cells in which the prisoners stay. These cells are almost transparent (you can see shadows), so the guards can see what the prisoners are doing at all times. An important feature of the architecture is that the prisoners can’t see whether they are being observed, because the windows in the observation tower are blinded. According to Foucault, the mechanism that arises here has to do with discipline. The prisoners become disciplined because they don’t know when they are observed. There are only a few guards necessary to keep the peace. I think this mechanism is fascinating. Just because people know they can been seen, they behave differently (regardless whether or not they are actually watched).

The same mechanism arises in the field of CI. As an organization, you (may) know you can be watched by your competitors, but you don’t know for sure whether this is the case. As a result, organizations  may behave differently. The awareness regarding the possibility that information about the organization is visible for competitors, affects the organization’s behavior. The question that remains is whether you are aware that you can be watched by your competitors (or do you know for sure that this isn’t the case?)? There are different ways to react to this awareness. For instance, you can review all your public information, and remove everything a competitor can use. When this is done, your competitors can’t find anything useful about you, but the same applies to your customers!

Another way to react is to put your information out there for your competitor to see. It is even possible to cooperate with your competitors and share your information with them. It is obvious that sometimes you can learn from them. Transparency in this case doesn’t lead to discipline (as in the Panopticum) but it leads to growth. Growth in success hopefully, but certainly growth in information. From this information everyone can profit. When you are fully informed about your market, you can try to be better than your competitors. But since your competitors are fully informed too, they will try the same. This can be a very inspiring and challenging environment. In competition with others you can achieve more than you can do alone.

Clearly, I don’t claim that everyone should make their market plans and product designs available for everyone to see. I just want to point out that sharing information isn’t inherently as bad as one might think. It can be very productive, because it will challenge the organization to be innovative and to perform better.  I also would like to create some consiousness in the field of CI about ‘being seen’. While you try to gain information about your competitors, your competitors probably try to do the same.

Concluding, when practicing CI you should not only be aware of what your competitors do, but also of what you do that can be of value for your competitors. Although this area isn’t part of CI (or is it?), CI makes this easier to find out. If you know what information you can use from your competitor, you know what information your competitor can use. This awareness is the first step. You should decide for yourself what you want to do with this awareness. Just keep in mind that sharing information can be very productive!

Links
Biography of Michel Foucault (1926-1984) by The Foucault Society

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